What makes “good” music?

I see composer websites of people who write what I think is “not so good” music where they list multitudes of grants, fellowships, and studies at educational heavy-hitters.  Does this make their music “good”?  I don’t think so.

I listen to music that is highly academicized to the point of being nearly completely conceptual with minor musical elements.  Does the concept always make the music “good”?  I don’t think so.

I hear bands that “play what people want to hear”, or so they say.  The intuitive jam-band mentality works for one in a million of them, but does it inherently make their music “good”?  I don’t think so.

What about the “it only matters to you” approach, where we can only qualify what is “good” in our mind and can’t comment on any absolute merit?  I think this is a bad path.  The relativist attitude this takes negates any worth of the art outside of our personal likes and dislikes, yet most art is made to be enjoyed across multiple people in a society.  Therefore, negating any standards a society holds seems counterproductive in making art.

My solution: it’s all about the balance.  I don’t adopt a strict guideline for what makes good music and what doesn’t, but I think a balance of  elements  (or lack thereof)  makes music “good” (or “bad”).  Two criteria that I’m certain that have to be in this mix are intellect and intuition.  Music has to have an intellectual component and an intuitive component, and both have to be strong enough to a.) hold their own, b.) compensate for each other, and c.) form a cohesive unit.

Intellect is important because it is the component that adds judgment, revision, depth, consideration, and most importantly, thought, to music.  Music isn’t a purely sonic entity.  We think about it (us musicians do it nearly all the time), judge it, reconsider our judgments, etc.  Thought is the basis of our science of creating music (I’ll get to the art of creating music later).  The interpretation of the bare sonic materials bombarding our ears, and the will we force on unsuspecting air molecules (see Zappa, haha) originate in the chemical and electrical signals running through our brains.  Our processing of music refines music, progresses music, and creates more complex or more thoughtful art.

Intuition is the art of music, and is important because it is the spark and the unquantifiable aspect of the musical experience.  It is the opposite of the intellect–impulsive, rash, emotional, idiosyncratic, irrational, etc.  It just happens.  As an integral part of the human experience, intuition guides us without our even knowing it.  An an integral part of the musical experience, intuition gives life to pitches and rhythms in a composer’s head or in a performer’s fingers.  Because it is at the core of the musical experience, it must be present for music to be art; otherwise music appears as quantized eighth notes.

Let me qualify some of my statements regarding these two topics:

Intellect can be grown to the point where it becomes intuition–in fact, this is part of the normal learning process.  And, intuition is, at the molecular level, intellect that we’re not aware of.  But, these two forces oppose each other in music–even chance music used by John Cage involved consulting the I Ching (flipping coins being analogous to intellect and the I Ching analogous to intuition)–and need to be in some sort of balance to make a complete piece of music.  Music generated by a computer is music (there is no doubt that there are sounds emanating from the speakers), and music thrown together haphazardly is music (people may indeed generate sound waves from it), but in the end, having too much of one or too little of the other leads to bad (or incomplete) music.

I know this is a touchy topic, so I hope I didn’t offend anyone….

Thanks for reading,

Dan